23/04/2013 14:51 BST | Updated 23/06/2013 06:12 BST

It Is Not How Long You Are in School That Matters - It Is How That Time Is Spent

Michael Gove's call for shorter school holidays and a longer school day is much less surprising than the fact we have stuck with a timetable based around the needs of a 19th Century agricultural economy and wakes weeks - or "tattie holidays", when kids would go to the fields to pick potatoes.

A quarter century of high energy school reform has passed since the Education Reform Act of 1988, which changed so many aspects of how schools are run, but the pattern of schooling has remained stubbornly resistant to reform. So it is worth considering what would make a persuasive argument for change and in particular the case for structure following function. We must start with an explicit statement of the curriculum that should be covered by schools and then decide on the time and pattern of schooling needed to deliver it.

Most pupils experience a school year which is 190 days long, enjoying six weeks off in summer, two weeks at Christmas and Easter as well as three half term breaks lasting a week each. School days usually run from around 9am to 3-3.30pm. But there are now almost 3,000 academies and free schools who are freer to vary their operating hours if they wish.

It is not that policy hasn't tried to bring the pattern of schooling within the school reform agenda. Examples of this include:

  • A number of academies (though relatively few) exercising their freedom to adopt longer days and others varying term and holiday dates.
  • The summer schools programme which began in 2012 to provide extra support to disadvantaged pupils, making the transition from primary school to help improve their educational attainment and address the summer performance dip.
  • Attempts at system wide restructuring such as the Independent Commission on the Organisation of the School Year The Rhythms of Schooling (LGA, December 2001) which made a well argued if evidently unpersuasive case to fix the Easter holiday and cut the long summer break through a six term year.
  • Government backed initiatives for tackling disadvantage like the extended school programme, remembered by many as the initiator of the breakfast club, which encouraged schools to provide a range of services and activities, often beyond the school day, to help meet the needs of children and their families and wider community.

Michael Gove has made much of the success of East Asian countries which teach pupils longer and others have cited the longer school days (for some including Saturdays as well) of sought after independent schools, though they generally have longer holidays too. Equally there are other examples like the KIPP programme in the USA or the Expanded Learning Time initiative from Massachusetts.

These examples present an interesting challenge to educationalists but equally they are not evidence of a causal relationship between exam success and the pattern of schooling. Indeed such a relationship is hard to establish and consequently those who search the education literature for hard evidence for a different pattern of schooling are likely to come away unsatisfied.

It is not how long you are in school that matters; it is how that time is spent. So those who seeking a better evidenced starting place, might be advised to begin, not with the example of East Asia, but with the notion that the pattern of teaching should depend on what we want children to learn, and the number of teacher contact hours and pattern of teaching and learning needed to deliver that curriculum. With the primary and secondary curriculums under review and the school accountability measures changing, this is actually a timely moment to raise the question of the pattern of schooling. But the academic curriculum is just part of the story.

The case for pupils spending extra time in school should also be that it allows the time needed for enrichment character and resilience developing activities like music, creative arts and sport and leadership to support raising achievement. In this respect before we start to talk about how much more time pupils should spend in school it is essential that we embark on a consultation which is wider than just what should be in the revised national curriculum.

While no self respecting policymaker would argue for a pattern of schooling based on bringing in the harvest, that does not in itself help us identify the right solution for pupils in the 21st Century. For anyone who doubts this, the failure of House of Lords reform should be sufficient reminder of the folly of government deciding form without first properly resolving function.